The ominous power of confession

I’ve just read a remarkable article [pdf] on 125 proven cases of wrongful conviction in the US justice system where the accused made a false confession.

While we tend to think that no-one would confess to a crime they’ve never committed the phenomenon is a lot more common than we assume. The article cites studies where convicted people have been subsequently proved innocent, largely through DNA evidence, and 14-25% had made a false confession.

Research has now established that certain police interrogation techniques can lead to false confessions, and it is not only through intimidated suspects confessing even though they know they’re innocent. In some cases, categorised as ‘coerced-internalized’ false confessions, the person starts to doubt their own memory and actually comes to believe that they did commit the crime.

Interestingly, there is evidence that this is most likely to occur in the most serious crimes, possibly because the police themselves are under pressure to solve the cases. In this study, 81% of false confessions were for murders, 9% for rapes and 3% for arsons.

The article also outlines the impact of a confession on the justice system. We discussed an experimental study on the persuasive effect of confessions previously, but below is a remarkable run down of evidence from the ‘real world’.

I’ve taken out the numerical references for ease of reading, but if you want to check out the sources for the following section, it’s taken from p920:

…a suspect‚Äôs confession sets in motion a virtually irrefutable presumption of guilt among criminal justice officials, the media, the public and lay jurors. A suspect who confesses‚Äîwhether truthfully or falsely‚Äîwill be treated more harshly at every stage of the criminal justice process. Once police obtain a confession, they typically close the investigation, clear the case as solved, and make no effort to pursue other possible leads‚Äîeven if the confession is internally inconsistent, contradicted by external evidence or the result of coercive interrogation.

Like police, prosecutors rarely consider the possibility that an entirely innocent suspect has been made to confess falsely through the use of psychologically coercive and/or improper interrogation methods. When there is a confession, prosecutors tend to charge the defendant with the highest number and types of offenses and are far less likely to initiate or accept a plea bargain to a reduced charge. Suspects who confess will experience greater difficulty making bail (especially in serious cases), a disadvantage that significantly reduces a criminal defendant’s likelihood of acquittal.

Defense attorneys are more likely to pressure their clients who have confessed to waive their constitutional right to a trial and accept a guilty plea to a lesser charge. Judges are conditioned to disbelieve claims of innocence and almost never suppress confessions, even highly questionable ones. If the defendant’s case goes to trial, the jury will treat the confession as more probative of the defendant’s guilt than virtually any other type of evidence, especially if—as in virtually all high profile cases—the confession receives negative pre-trial publicity.

Confession evidence (regardless of how it was obtained) is so biasing that juries will convict on the basis of confession alone, even when no significant or credible evidence confirms the disputed confession and considerable significant and credible evidence disconfirms it. Sadly, if a false confessor is convicted, he will almost certainly be sentenced more harshly

The article, ‘The Problem of False Confessions in the Post-DNA World’, originally published in the North Carolina Law Review is quite long but a gripping read.

pdf of article.
Link to citation and summary of article.

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